Sunday, May 23, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2012


I gave my retrospective on the albums of 2012 a lot of thought and I think my choices stand up, so I'm going to go in the same order for this year. I guess don't read that article if you don't want this reveal spoiled for you.

The Ben Folds Five reunited in 2011 after being broken up for three years. In 2012, they released The Sound of the Life of the Mind, their first original album since 1999. The band as a whole was unsigned, so they launched a PledgeMusic crowdfunding campaign to get the money to release the album. That goal was met twice over within the campaign's first week. 

Ben Folds had collaborated with author Nick Hornby on 2010's Lonely Avenue and Hornby returned to write lyrics for the title track, "The Sound of the Life of the Mind." There is a ballad entitled "Sky High" composed by drummer Darren Jessee. All other songs are written by Ben Folds. 

"Erase Me" kicks off the album with chunky, fuzz guitar mixing with aggressive keys. "Draw a Crowd" is an upbeat, comical song. "Hold That Thought" isn't quite a ballad, but "Thank You For Breaking My Heart" definitely is. The latter is absolutely heartbreaking. But at least you'll know that it's in there. "Do It Anyway," the album's lead single, is a terrific mantra over Folds' signature piano style. Folds has stated that the inspiration was a combination of quotes on cards his mother used to give him for birthdays and a concert-goer who yelled "do it anyway!" after folds explained that his upcoming ballad wasn't going to be the kind he could "stand on the piano and, you know, shake my a** to." The video features the Fraggles of Fraggle Rock and some human celebrities of course. These explanations seem a little disjointed, but the songs on the album are not.

Two members of the recently disbanded Tally Hall released albums in 2012. 

Andrew Horowitz was first with sketches by what he officially called edu. At the time, the album was only released on a cassette with handwritten liner notes, but within the last few years, he finally refined and reissued it digitally and on vinyl as Sketches 3D. If there was ever an album that worked perfectly on cassette, this was it. Sketches is what a friend might record for you on their cassette recorder- if they're a very skilled songwriter and musician friend, that is. Horowitz always had the most heartfelt lyrics in Tally Hall, and the warm tunes on this album are a perfect display of that. Every song is cute and sweet and his cover of "Rainbow Connection" is the most genuine one I expect to hear. "Daisy Fingers," "Miss Melody," and "HEY YOU!" are my favorite tracks, but it's hard not to love all of them.

The next member of Tally Hall to release a solo work was Joe Hawley, who also decided to use a pseudonym, but in keeping with the bizarre nature of most things Hawley has a hand in, his pseudonym was ミラクルミュージカル (which translates to Miracle Musical). He released Hawaii: Part II, a simultaneously strange and masterful album. Hawley dances between vaudevillian sounds, sweeping orchestral music, and use of vocoder. A few earlier Tally Hall demos found themselves polished up for this album, most notably "The Mind Electric." Hawley has explained the album by telling a local access show called Band "When our family went to Hawaii in the summer of 1997, I heard this music in my mind and I knew I had to make it at some point." I'm glad he, Ross Federman, and Bora Karaca managed to bring it to life. 

For me, one of the most anticipated albums of 2012 was Some Nights by fun. Their first album was so good that I couldn't wait for what lay in store. 

Leading up to the release of the album, fun. released "We Are Young," the fun. song that finally rocked the world. "We Are Young" featured the great Janelle Monáe in the shoes Rachel Antonoff used to fill, as the occasional female vocalist. The song itself was doing fairly well on the charts, but then it was used on Glee, which was a bump that used to be great for indie bands in terms of commercial success. Sure, it meant that the concerts were now riddled with tweens who knew them for one song, but the band being successful has to be the main goal. Then the song was featured in a Superbowl commercial for the Chevy Sonic (which I remember seeing as it originally aired, through the glass door of a house I was delivering pizza to) and at that point if you hadn't heard the song before, even you knew it. This song went to #1 in the U.S. and the U.K., partly swept up in the trend of indie/alternative artists making it big on mainstream radio (see: Gotye, American Authors, Vance Joy) and partly based on the quality of the song itself. You see, after Aim and Ignite, fun. decided that they wanted something that would actually be commercially successful. They enlisted Jeff Bhasker as the producer. That wasn't an easy task, as Bhasker was the producer for Beyoncé. He worked with Alicia Keys, Jay Z and Kanye West and would go on to work with Bruno Mars, Lana Del Rey, and would work with Mark Ronson on one of the upcoming albums of the year. "We are Young" was the song that sold him on fun. Nate Ruess sang it for him (acapella I think?) and he suddenly became interested in working with the band. 

With Bhasker's help, Some Nights hit #3 on the U.S. Billboard hot 200, reaching #1 on the rock, alternative, and vinyl charts. fun. won best new artist at the Grammy's (I don't know how that award works, but I can't understand how they counted as "new") and "We Are Young" walked away with song of the year. They had three hit singles from the album, with the best one, "Carry On," unfortunately not seeing as much success on the charts, presumably because everyone was sick of being overexposed to their work by then. The titular "Some Nights" is tied with "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morrisette as being most likely to be accidentally played on the radio unedited because no one expects an f-bomb from such a huge hit song.

Before I go on too long, I'll just wrap this one up by saying that, while this album was disappointing for me compared to Aim and Ignite, it's still very good. Bhasker is a good commercial producer, but of course his polish was far different from the indie glow Redd Cross's Steven Shane McDonald put on their first album. I absolutely adore, "Carry On." It's on my list of cry-worthy songs (I have probably cried to it myself). My review mostly holds up, other than the fact that I praised Bhasker's production but said the album was "experimental" and held up my hopes for their third album that has not come to be so far.

It's probably clear to you that I'm a big fan of Death Cab for Cutie and Benjamin Gibbard. Gibbard's Former Lives came out in 2012 and brought something a little bit different to the table. Officially, Former Lives is Gibbard's first solo album, although his work as ¡All-Time Quarterback! was definitely at least as much solo work, if not more. Former Lives is a great deal more polished and mature. Several tracks were recorded on Garageband, which makes that fact all the more impressive. Much of the album is light and acoustic, but with a full, rich sound. 

Former Lives features guest vocals from Aimee Mann and Zooey Deschanel, and appearances from other musicians in addition to Gibbard. Deschanel lends her dreamy vocals to "Something's Rattling" and Latin American group Trio Ellas provide accompaniment. Aimee Mann is featured on the duet "Bigger Than Love," her voice blending with Gibbard's perfectly. 

"Lily" shows off Gibbard's voice and his talent for writing metaphorical, romantic lyrics. My favorite piece of poetry though, is "Oh, Woe," a song about trying to pull yourself out of depression. It's upbeat, but the lyrics make it clear that the narrator is struggling. A standout line for me is "you're nothing like the way you looked//in all those famous songs and books" as the narrator has clearly romanticized sadness, but realized it's a great deal more crushing than he had imagined. Second favorite line is "it's been a basement of a year//and all I want's for you to disappear." 2012 was a basement of a year for me.

Finally, my favorite album of 2012 comes from a band whose albums have consistently been in my top albums of the year, but who got pushed just slightly to the front of the fray in 2012, partly thanks to the confusing energy someone with OCPD gets when they are in a new relationship. 

Mia Pharaoh
by Miniature Tigers is my favorite album from 2012. Mia Pharaoh shows the band trying on a new sound, but it's in no way a turn-off. Ahead of the album, the single "Boomerang" was made available to fans. It acted as a sonic bridge between the earlier albums and Mia Pharaoh

Synthesizers and late '70s/early '80s influence drive the sound for the album. Frontman Charlie Brand also moved past the “Like or Like Like” phrase of his songwriting and on to songs like “Sex on the Regular” and “Female Doctor.” Between poppy, upbeat songs are slower, dreamier tracks like "Cleopatra" and "Ugly Needs." There is an ethereal dreampop quality to the songs that aren't as up-tempo.

In my first apartment, 2012.
"Afternoons With David Hockney" is one of my favorite tracks on the album, and acts as a strange ode to English artist David Hockney, who seems to be source of inspiration for Charlie Brand (who also provides album art for Miniature Tigers albums).

Mia Pharaoh dips and dives through sounds and tempos, flowing smoothly. The lyrics are as strange as they typically are for Miniature Tigers, but the sound is very slightly more polished and commercial. Their contemporaries were moving toward '80s sounds, which they would do eventually on Cruel Runnings

I loved blasting this album. We had an early summer in 2012, and I remember riding around in my truck with my windows down, playing this album and lying to myself that life was good. I got to see the guys support this album a few times, including once as openers for fun. It was a good era for the band. I love "Boomerang," ever the most catchy track on the album, but many of the songs are earworms. There was something nostalgic about this album even when it first came out, but at this point, looking back nine years later, it definitely is nostalgic.

Anyway, leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2013!

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